Museums – our national genius

PompeiiI may frequently express criticisms about their finer workings but British museums and galleries are generally superbly run. Heroic efforts are made to minimise the impact of funding cuts so that even regular visitors will notice little or no impact. From looking at the outward face of our museums you would never guess the country was in anything like the mess the numbers would indicate. They open on time: they have excellent facilities; their staffs are visible, willing and helpful; their experts are sought after the world over; they are clean; they have disability access to the ceiling; their bookshelves cater to all types of reader and interest; and their collections are by and large well maintained, sensitively exhibited and most supply informative captions. Many of them have for centuries been kept open free of charge for everyone, often against all odds and arguments. They are exemplary resorts of enlightened thinking about education and the preservation of history. This quiet effectiveness is a substantial achievement which is easy to take for granted. The truth is that when it comes to museums, in Britain we have been spoilt.

This native genius was recognised recently when the Italian Culture Minister announced a fundamental shake-up in his own country’s major museums by throwing open twenty directorships to all-comers. Heading the published lists of dream candidates were many Britons. That Italy desperately needs help running its museums can not be in any doubt in the minds of those who have recently visited that country.

Newspapers have lately reported that Pompeii is at last rising from the ashes of incompetence and corrupt administration. Having been partially rescued from beneath the sludge of AD79, in recent years other man-made ravages have befallen this astounding place –  structures have collapsed, excavation has ceased, and the site has been subjected to looting and vandalism. All of that, we are proudly informed, is now in the past. Sanity has set in and the place is safe in Italian hands. Millions of euros (doubtless originating in Germany) are being lavished to turn Pompeii into less than the unloved disgrace it has been in the recent past.

Don’t believe a word of it. If Pompeii is typical of how Italy runs its museums – and it does seem to be – no wonder British and German experts are being wooed, because even organising the basics efficiently defeats Italians.

The situation is hopeless and it starts as soon as you arrive. Gates open half an hour late, which especially annoys those scores who have arrived early to steal a march on a punishing summer sun. Once admitted, crowds jostle forever to buy a ticket because only two people are taking money. Matters are made worse because neither has any change. They accept only the correct money which must involve coins. In Italy it is virtually impossible to have coins not least because no one will give them to you: they hoard them like juju beads. The inevitable chaos is entirely avoidable and compounded when concessionary cards are not accepted unless accompanied by a passport. Endless negotiations ensue with each now sweating and thoroughly exasperated visitor. You then try the bookshop for a guide and detailed map. They don’t have any change either and diagrams in the Blue Guide are better than the childish plan costing a euro. So extreme is the provocative indifference of staff it can only be intended as a calculated insult. It’s as though they don’t want you here.

In general museum bookshops and cafés are, throughout Italy, not seen as important revenue earners or as crucial a part of further education as we treat them in Britain. At Reggio’s museum they provide a rudimentary brochure for 7 euros about the Riace bronzes, the most precious sculptures of the ancient Greek world. Many of those making the trek to this furthest bunion of land will be willing to pay a premium for something more detailed. There is no bookshop at Tiberius’s villa in Sperlonga, the remarkable Villa Poppeia at Oplontis, or at the Agrigento Museum with its stunning collection of red and black ware.

The anarchy characterising admission to Pompeii follows you about the site. In nearly all the most treasured areas there is no visible security. At the distant Villa of the Mysteries, to which I arrived in advance of everyone else, not a soul was there to protect what are among the most important paintings in the history of classical art. Perfect for me, despite the fact that they weren’t properly visible because unlit, but I fear dwelling on the damage parties of Europe’s and Asia’s squealing, uninterested and accessoried oiks might wreak on a place like this – they look with their hands.

They say that Pompeii is the place in which to wander, get lost and release your imagination. Indeed it is, but you can’t do this because too little of even the excavated area is open. Crime-scene tape forces you to remain on thoroughfares which rapidly become Wembley Way on cup final day.

At the farthest extremities of the site there are no services. There is nowhere to sit comfortably or to buy the fluid necessary when, as on my recent visit, the temperature soars beyond forty degrees centigrade. There are water fountains if you are prepared to trust the liquid coming out of them in a city with a pervasive smell of drains and where essential social infrastructure of hygiene and refuse collection have disintegrated. (Naples is a memorable city but filthier even than Oldham.) A third of my eight hours were spent sitting reading either Mary Beard or an old guidebook while trying to satisfy unquenchable thirst. An air-conditioned café on the periphery near the amphitheatre with coins in the till, simple food and cold drinks, and ice cream, would have cleaned up. By the time they’ve beaten the long procession around to the theatres, all visitors are as stripped and dessicated as Peter O’Toole staggering across the Devil’s Anvil. It would be so easy to make this unique place even more of a memorable experience than it is.

Beside its serial inconveniences, the site’s main offence has to be a new building of which administrators are so proud as to make it a feature of all publicity material. As with many European museum extensions, this contract has